Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Race, regurgitated

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on January 27, 2013)

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, Jacqueline Fernandez, Anil Kapoor, Ameesha Patel and others
Directors: Abbas-Mustan
Rating: 1 star
If you’ve had the misfortune of watching Race, you’ve already seen Race 2. The story is pretty much – no, wait, exactly – the same, except for minor changes in the cast. Playing RD’s (Anil Kapoor’s) bimbette secretary is Ameesha Patel, as Cherry. The name gives the dialogue-writers – if indeed any were hired – to come up with witticisms like, “I don’t have time to pop your cherry.” We learn his previous secretary, played by Sameera Reddy, has now found happiness with a sheikh. Full points for stereotyping.
Here, too, we have two rich siblings, of whom one is a bad egg. Armaan Malik (John Abraham) and Aleena (Deepika Padukone) own half the world together. And lest any of us forget it, we’re reminded constantly by the characters themselves that everything is about money. And yet, somehow, everybody else trusts them. Thank heavens for negative IQs.
Ranvir Singh (Saif Ali Khan) is back, this time out to avenge the cruellest twist of fate he’s suffered. He hatches a complicated – and very expensive plot – and thanks to the low IQs already mentioned, this plot is put through several more twists and turns, until no one can remember who’s on whose side.
The story is what happens between the loud songs, all of which happen during parties, and all of which look and sound alike. Half the rest of the time is lost in people hitting on each other. And the remaining is spent in long confessions, and hard talk. Inexplicably, there is a long scene that involves male nudity, and even more inexplicably, it appears the one man who was willing to shed his towel was the one least in shape.
Through a daze of mind-numbed stupor, one reflects during the interval that it’s bewildering that films like this actually get made, their sequels are sanctioned, they actually release in theatres, and even more bizarrely, rake in money. While I can understand why Anil Kapoor and Ameesha Patel – well, and maybe Jacqueline Fernandez – have time to act in this film, I wonder what the rest of the star cast is doing in it. Unless they’re there for the booze, of which there is plenty.
It’s hard to make any sense of the plot – there appears to be a lot of fake currency, and a lot of people are good at poker. There are several fast cars, many countries with absolutely no system of background checks on anyone who wants to get into their elite security forces, and numerous gadgets that do all sorts of unbelievable things.
The Verdict: Don’t even bother waiting for it to be screened on television. These are two and a half extremely painful hours you will never get back.

The Last Stand: He’s back, with several bangs

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on January 26, 2013)

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eduardo NoriegaForest WhitakerLuis GuzmanPeter StormareJohnny Knoxville
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Rating: 2 stars
What does an immigrant ex-governor, who’s been in the news mainly for his marital woes, his crazy sixty-fifth birthday, and the prospect of the fifth edition of his Terminator series, do when he makes a comeback to Hollywood? Chase a Corvette all over the place – we’re told very often that it’s a Corvette, and it can go really fast – as it carries a bunch of illegals back to Mexico, where all the drugs are, and should be. The one-liner he bites out to them appears to be unintentionally ironic in his thick Austrian accent, but hey, if you can believe Schwarzenegger is Sheriff Ray Owens, you can deal with that.
Despite his sagging shoulders, Schwarzenegger’s muscles bulge under his wrinkled skin, and he’s not going to use them just to race that Corvette. No, sir, he’s going to fire shots from big guns. And do some other random action stuff, like breaking through walls and whatnot. This time round, though, he tells us through his very stretched out lips on a very stretched out face that he’s old. He’s the Big Daddy of a border town, where the most exciting thing that happens is a high school football game. He’s also mentor to three deputies, who clearly couldn’t find work anywhere else.
The key line in the film is “I know what’s coming”, and that’s exactly how the audience feels all through. Of course, Owens gets a call from federal agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker). Of course, it’s about the most dangerous gangster in the world, who’s escaped the most secure prison in the world. Of course, the gangster’s cronies have been building a bridge in a sensitive area, that hasn’t been spotted by anyone. Of course, Owens is so cool he can pull together a bunch of hillbillies and take on ruthless Mexicans. Of course, just to prove that not all Mexicans are evil, there’s a good guy called Frank Martinez. He’s a jailbird too, but never mind that. Of course, the cast includes a chick who shows us mascara and machine guns do mix, after all. Of course, there’s no plot.
The film starts off with a car chase, and spirals us into a series of impossibilities. And to distract us from these impossibilities, the dialogue – largely comprising lame one-liners – is punctuated by gunshots. In Hollywood’s America, you ain’t worth nothin’ unless you can kill a lot of people as you go about stopping fugitives from crossing the border in the most inefficient manner possible. In an explosion of screeching wheels and ear-splitting combat sounds, we run through cornfields and Western streets, thanking God for giving America Ray Owens.
At some point, one begins to enjoy the gore-fest, especially when one figures out just how seriously the cast takes itself. And it helps that the film is shot as if the director were taking a dig at himself.
The Verdict: If you want to leave your brains behind and watch people splatter like tomatoes, book your tickets.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Race 2: A Mess of Twists

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on January 27, 2013, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/a-mess-of-twists)

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, John Abraham, Deepika Padukone, and others
Directors: Abbas-Mustan
Rating: ½ star
Cheap double entendres, check. Fast cars, check. Yellow cars, check. Squad of yea-saying firangs, check. Excessive panting and desperate feeling-up, check.  Skinny chicks with tiny décolletage spilling out of tinier bikini tops, check. Scenes ripped off from Hollywood, check. Scorpion symbolism, check. Bipasha Basu, check. Yes, it’s an Abbas-Mustan film. And the fact that the film proudly declares its brand partner as Sunsilk, and news partner as India TV, tells us just how lowbrow it is.
Littered with clichés ranging from “Revenge is a dish best served cold” to “Promises are made to be broken”, Race 2 doesn’t even make a pretence of doing anything new. This time, the kings of rotten pulp are brazen enough to lift the entire sword-fighting sequence out ofThe Mask of Zorro, complete with the music.
Do you really need to know what the plot is? Well, obviously, it involves a bunch of rich people who strut about with a bunch of mannequins. Everyone sleeps with everyone else, and whenever they run out of things to say, they all dance together. A breathless narrative explains to us just how clever each of these bloodhounds is, and our only respite from the knowing smiles, rippling muscles, grinding torsos and exposed navels comes through gadgets. Every now and then, the camera focuses on impossible gadgets with hidden sensors, and we’re allowed to keep ourselves occupied in guessing what is connected to what, and how the filmmakers intend to explain all of it.
As if it weren’t bad enough that every film made by this director duo in the past decade has had exactly the same story, they’re now making sure each of these spawns sequels that are held together by a mess of crossings and double-crossings. The only thing that changes is the name of each character. Even the cast appears to have got repetitive.
By the time the interval approaches, about five hammed revelations into the story, most of the audience is half-asleep. Even the sounds of screeching tyres, fisticuffs, raunchy romps, and gunshots have blended into a hum, thanks to the frequency of their employment. Just in case the convoluted story of Armaan Malik (John Abraham), his nymphomaniac sister (Deepika Padukone), his kleptomaniac girlfriend Omisha (Jacqueline Fernandez), and their intense acquaintance Ranveer (Saif Ali Khan) gets too heavy for us, the filmmakers thoughtfully provide us with comic relief through Anil Kapoor and Ameesha Patel. It would suffice to say the ploy backfires.
The Verdict: The only original touch in this film is the sight of a man doing splits, followed by a pelvic thrust, while being held by two men, ahead of a cage fight.

Akaash Vani: Short of its potential

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on January 27, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/short-of-its-potential)

Cast: Kartik Tiwari, Nushrat Bharucha
Director: Luv Ranjan
Rating: 3 stars
It’s a bold ambition to inject life into the hoary old theme of a relationship triangle. Riding on the success of Pyaar ka Punchnama, Luv Ranjan gives us the frame we’ve seen so often before – two people fall in love, one of them ends up with someone else, and then they meet again. While what Ranjan does with his plotline is interesting at times, it falls short of the mark, sometimes descending into melodrama.
Having caught the trailer, I was already prepared for some eye-rolling. First, there’s the laboured pun in the title. And then, there’s the little exchange between the couple – “Honeymoon is a three-letter word...S-E...okay, it’s a four-letter word...F-U-C...” Sigh. And do we really need to see more spoofing of Nineties Bollywood?
The film is fun enough when it deals with the time Akaash (Kartik Tiwari) and Vani (Nushrat Bharucha) first meet. But this tends to lag after a point, because it doesn’t offer us anything new. The clever lines feel old, the scenes feel stretched. With the film running into two and a half hours, one can think of several bits that it could’ve done without.
Ranjan explores the complexities in the story mainly through loaded silences. The problems Vani faces in her marriage, the disturbing torture she suffers, in ways that are hard to articulate, layer the plot with more dimensions. Nushrat Bharucha is convincing both as the small-town girl, suddenly liberated away from home, and the wife who can’t stand up to her husband.
The undoing of the film is that it falls back on staples too often, down to the safe ending. It’s as if the writers, at some point, stopped putting themselves in the place of the two lovers. The dialogue, which is endearingly natural at times, gets increasingly stilted. There are gaps in the story that are never filled, and questions in our heads that are never answered. Why did Akaash do nothing to claim Vani in all these years? Where is the resentment each must nurse against the other, under such circumstances?
While the leads act very well as college kids, we only see glimpses of their skill when they play older versions of themselves. Perhaps the script is to blame. Why does smoking automatically make a boy a man? Once, just once, I’d like to see a man quit smoking to prove he’s grown up, on celluloid.
The Verdict: This beautifully shot film does show promise at times, but it appears the filmmakers weren’t quite sure how to take it forward.

High-spirited, but underwhelming

(Published in The Friday Times, on January 25, 2013, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20130125&page=19)

Cast: Pankaj Kapur, Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Shabana Azmi, Arya Babbar
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Rating: 3 stars
If the trailers and the soundtrack of Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola had you hooked, the opening of the film will hike up your expectations further. As public service messages are flashed on screen in English, a Hindi song warns us about the dangers of...well, everything, from lime juice to smoking. And then we see two men in a limo begging a liquor shack owner to sell them a desi brand of beer called ‘Gulabbo’ on a dry day. With a start this good, the film needs a crisp narrative arc to keep the momentum. Sadly, this doesn’t happen, despite a wonderfully wacko premise.
Harphool ‘Harry’ Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) is the sort of souse who would lead a revolt against himself, and the sort of powerhouse who would quite literally shoot it down when sober. He strives to please his lover Chaudhury Devi (Shabana Azmi) when he’s sober, and his gofer-turned-driver Hukum Singh Matru (Imran Khan) when he’s drunk. He dreams of building industrial towns that will spew ugly black fumes into the countryside air, and erecting glass-fronted malls where eaves of corn grow in the luscious fields of Haryana. All this, he says, is for his daughter Bijlee (Anushka), who appears to have a slightly more socialist bent, and whose only demand from her father is that he give up Gulabbo.
You’d think a director of Vishal Bhardwaj’s calibre could fashion a tight script out of this premise, but his management of screen time undermines the brilliance of the idea. First, there are so many strands in the story that there’s no scope to mould any of them the way they should be. What is the film trying to say? That networking and connections are important if you want to make money? That alcoholism isn’t particularly healthy? That communism is the way forward? That land acquisition is wrong? That love knows no servant-master boundaries, especially when the lovers are tipsy? That lawyers can go back to their villages and work for the welfare of the masses? Saddled with a forced love triangle, and replete with predictable comic sketches, the film dilutes the political issue it introduces, while wasting its time on elaborate gags.
While there are gaps in the storyline, the comedy is let down by overstating. The audience burst into laughter at a line that goes, “Tum dono ki jodi...jaise Mukesh aur Nita Ambani”, but that fell flat when it was followed by another comparison to Anil and Tina Ambani. When the humour begins to hinge on the sensationalist television media, footsie under the Chief Minister’s table, and people with disabilities, the story starts to sag.
Mandola’s character is beautifully crafted, and executed with the panache Kapur always brings to his roles. However, the others aren’t as well etched. Through cameos, we’re given a hint of Matru’s love life in Delhi, but there’s almost nothing, save for a couple of dialogues, that indicates what his relationship with Bijlee is. We know he has Marxist ideals, but we have no idea where or how he was introduced to them, and whether he has anyone helping him with his “revolution”. Imran Khan distracted me from focusing on the character for some time, with his sizzling stubbly avatar, but the vagueness of Matru’s character did begin to niggle even before the interval. Anushka Sharma is cast once again in the role of bubbly, happy girl whose vibrant personality camouflages a sad life. Shabana Azmi’s character is meant to be over-the-top, but she plays it so that it borders on spoof rather than burlesque, and the menace the role could have carried is lost to caricature.
There is a sense of the romance between Bijlee and Matru being rather sweet, and I wish we’d been shown a little more of its development. There are some lovely moments between the two, and a hilarious interlude involving a gulabi bhaens, but overall, the film feels like the director lost the plot somewhere along the way. Crowded with characters and storylines, the film can’t quite decide where to go, and the end is a mess of coincidences and unfinished business.
However, the film does have its share of positives, and its catchy musical score is outstanding. The title song and Rekha Bhardwaj’s Oye boy Charlie are instant earworms. Pankaj Kapur’s drunken rants are a delight, and the timing of the actors makes even the clichéd comedy bearable. If only Bhardwaj had controlled the pace of the film and spared us the rambling, Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola would have been a far more satisfying watch.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: Durbar is good for gossip on the Gandhis, little else

(Published in Sify.com, on January 25, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/book-review-durbar-is-good-for-gossip-on-the-gandhis-little-else-news-books-nbye5Agfdif.html)

Title: Durbar
Author: Tavleen Singh
Pages: 311
Price: Rs 599
Publisher: Hachette India
Durbar starts out with a dictionary definition of the word, as books written about exotic lands by foreigners are wont to. The book has, in some senses, been written by a foreigner, as the author confesses in her preface to the book. She “became aware of being a foreigner in [her] own country” when she was a sixteen-year-old, being harassed by “Hindi-speaking types” on a train.
Her description of the incident is reflective of the perspective in the book – where we tend to sympathise with the group of young women being ‘eve-teased’, the group of which Tavleen Singh was a part, she finds food for thought in the retort from one of the harassers, to a girl who was gutsy enough to stand up and chide them for their behaviour. She’d reprimanded them in English, and the ‘eve-teaser’ said, apparently, “in refined Hindustani”, ‘Angrez chale gaye, apni aulaad chhod gaye.’
The comment, the author says, made her reflect on her lack of knowledge of Hindi and Urdu. I find this deeply troubling. There is nothing poetic about a barb, least of all from the sort of man who would “make cheeky remarks and sing romantic songs from Hindi films” to a group of schoolgirls. To me, it smacks of aspirational envy at best, and grossly perverted sexism at worst.
Throughout the book, Tavleen Singh is critical of the Gandhi family’s inability to understand the crux of an issue, thanks to their skewed outlook. She explains this with an example, describing a skit called Pani ki Samasya by Hindi satirist Sharad Joshi:
“In the satire he had Rajiv arriving in a village and asking where the villagers got their water from. They explain that it comes from a river and he asks if they walk to the river or take public transport, unaware that in the eighties there were no taxis in rural India. When they tell him they have to walk to the river he points out that the water they bring back must be quite hot then. When they admit it is he orders an official to check if the World Bank can be persuaded to build a shed over the river.” (P. 279)
What follows is her surmise that if only Rajiv had listened to her advice on making Doordarshan more interesting and filling it with programmes, the national channel wouldn’t have been forced to follow him on tours of the countryside, during which his disconnect with ‘the real India’ was exposed. Thus, if Rajiv had listened to her, the country would never have learnt of his vacuity, and he would have been spared the humiliation of being parodied.
In other words, the author’s outlook is about as skewed as the Gandhi family’s. She mentions at one point that the Gandhis, being of common stock and not regal pedigree, had pretensions of royalty. This seems to be her main grouse with them – that they dared to create a dynasty of rulers, despite being commoners.
However, she appears to have no such issues with the clans that must have started off as warlords, aeons ago. Throughout the book, there is a sense of admiration for the antiquated customs of the royalty, and tacit disapproval of the fact that they were deprived of privy purses, and that raids were conducted on them, and that 800 kilograms of gold was seized from one ex-royal after being “accidentally” found by an angry income tax inspector who stomped his foot on the floor in a rage, having found no other possession that would incriminate them.
Right at the end of the book, Tavleen Singh clarifies that she has written so much about Sanjay, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s reign to bring out how Indira Gandhi initiated the idea of dynastic rule, which has now taken root in so many parties across India. This is a crucial issue, one that deserves far more focus than it gets in the book.
Sadly, there is far more space devoted to descriptions of Delhi’s drawing room circles and the impression their members made on the author, to the “socialist” interior décor of government buildings (down to curtains of the wrong colour), to the exquisite liqueurs and sumptuous meals at the exclusive parties the author was invited to, and to the banter among the women at these parties, of whom Sonia Gandhi was one. While Tavleen Singh is rightfully snarky about socialist politicians taking over luxurious colonial houses, she seems to take issue not so much with their act of occupying these houses as the rustic socialists’ failure to maintain them as well as they could have.
More disturbing is the fact that the author doesn’t appear to be as troubled by Rajiv Gandhi’s inheritance of the Prime Ministership of India than by the prospect of Sanjay ‘The Dictator’ Gandhi and Sonia ‘The Foreigner’ Gandhi inheriting it. While she often mentions her good friend and party partner Naveen Patnaik, she doesn’t appear to have problems with his inheritance of the BJD and Orissa from his father. Or, for that matter, with Farooq Abdullah’s inheritance of Kashmir from Sheikh Abdullah. Or with the Raje and Scindia clans’ political legacy. There is no mention of Omar Abdullah, or the Badals, or Karunanidhi’s several offspring, though the book does spill over to the era when the spawn of these clans had begun to play prominent roles in politics.
The book is disappointing in many ways because Tavleen Singh has been a crucial voice in the Eighties and Nineties, writing fearlessly about the rise of militancy in Punjab, no doubt at considerable risk to herself. I expected as keen a perspective, and as severe criticism, of the fallibility of the princes and princesses of politics in India.
The lack of insight in the book must be rather shocking to regular readers of her columns. I’ve found myself agreeing with her more often than not, from what I’ve read of her writing, which is why I find the book so hard to grasp. It is careless in its commentary, often thinking for other people – this is most apparent in the case of M J Akbar, who, in one instance she concludes was uncomfortable making his visit to the room where the rich kids came and went, talking of M F Husain. In another anecdote that is unintentionally more damning of her judgment than Akbar’s, she says she “wrote good things about [Rajiv Gandhi’s] padayatra because [she] knew that was what Akbar wanted.”
Often, she appears to defend Rajiv Gandhi, transferring the blame to bureaucrats, whom she subtly assigns with parochial prejudice, and whom she thinks for too. In speaking of the death of more than 1500 soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, she says:
“For this I blame Rajiv less than the bureaucrats, mostly Tamil, who advised him on his doomed policy in Sri Lanka. They must have realized that they were dealing with a prime minister who was a novice when it came to matters of foreign policy and with a mixture of flattery and chicanery they persuaded him to go down a road at the end of which there could never have been victory.”
Does the fact that the bureaucrats were Tamil automatically imply that they had designs in Sri Lanka? And is their purported sycophancy more problematic than the gullibility, inexperience, and insecurity of a prime minister with so little knowledge of foreign policy – and so little claim to intelligence – that he would trade prudence for an ego boost?
To her credit, Tavleen Singh is candid about how she benefited from access journalism, and recasts several of her journalistic indiscretions in a self-deprecatory tone.
From how she wangled an interview with Amitabh Bachchan by calling up Sonia Gandhi, to how she got a mutual friend to arrange for her to run into Rajiv Gandhi accidentally-on-purpose, to how she got into Punjab by using her father’s army credentials to get past military check posts, she holds nothing back from the reader.
She is equally open about her failings as a journalist – confessing that she sent an important diary, full of off-the-record conversations, in her luggage, on a plane that was eventually hijacked, that she developed a girly crush on Amitabh Bachchan when she was supposed to be questioning him and recording what he said, that she lost her notes on some of the most important events she witnessed, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech at the Ramlila Maidan in the 1977 rally held by the Opposition, ahead of elections.
The best section in the book is the one that pertains to Punjab and Bhindranwale. There is very little self-indulgence in this part, save for the thriller-like telling of the story – illustrated in the description of her conversation with the owner of a teashop frequented by Khalistan militants, where Tavleen Singh extracts high drama out of the avoiding of eye contact during a furtive exchange of information.
But her narration of the Khalistan movement and its aftermath is mostly gripping, and she brings out the fear and paranoia that existed on both sides of the divide quite beautifully. In a telling instance, she describes how her turbaned cousin was stopped by police in Lutyens’ Delhi as he was returning from a party, and tortured for hours, despite his aristocratic connections and affluent background.
One wishes she had exercised the same restraint of prose and sharpness of assessment throughout the book. From reading several of her columns, I was looking forward to reading the book, and really wanted to like it. But though it’s well-written in terms of language, I’m at a loss to understand why such mundane events as the Godrejs’ fanciful dinner parties are recounted in such detail, while such important events and issues are skipped over.
A particularly baffling omission is seen when she mentions that she met now-slain LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran. She says the first thing that struck her was that his eyes were those of a dead man – something that must occur to all those who have seen his photographs and videos. And then, nothing. There is no description of what he said, whether he spoke to her, what the impression of Tamil journalists at the meeting was, and what sort of impression he made. In contrast, there is a lengthy analysis of Indira Gandhi’s use – wait, mispronounced use – of the word “fissiparous”.
Perhaps the book needed an editor who was less in awe of its contents, and the foreign-educated socialites it crawls with. Perhaps journalists and columnists, who are usually pressed to say what they have to say in 300-800 words, find it hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out when they’re given as many pages. A good editor would have been handy in pointing out that there are way too many commas missing. While the book is deliciously gossipy, especially for readers who want to know who gets along with whom, and who fell out with whom, in the crowd that flutters in and out of rooms with silver furniture, it disappoints those of us with plainer taste.
I find it strange that at the end of the book, I know that Sonia Gandhi had a darzi in Khan Market, whose work Naveen Patnaik mistook for a Valentino creation, but have no clue how anyone of political importance reacted to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in the presence of close friends and trusted aides who are prone to ratting them out to Tavleen Singh. I also know that Sonia Gandhi brought back a sable coat from Russia, and that she considers Fendi a superior designer house to anything Russia could produce, and that she wore makeup for Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral, and that she and Maneka Gandhi fought over dog biscuits. But I don’t know how much anyone knew of the manner in which Warren Anderson was smuggled out of India in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
In the absence of such crucial moments, such turning points in a family’s rule of this country, one wonders why the book was written. Couldn’t accounts of the idle conversations of manicured ladies, and whispered confidences of Doon School old boys, make fitter content for a column on Delhi’s drawing rooms, with a titillating title like ‘Insider’s View’ or ‘From the Persian Rug’ – or ‘Durbar’?

Vishwaroopam: It's time cinema stopped bowing down to bigots

(Published in Sify.com on January 24, 2013, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/movies/vishwaroopam-it-s-time-cinema-stopped-bowing-down-to-bigots-news-columns-nbylpBcabei.html)

This Friday, as one of Kamal Haasan’s most-awaited films, Vishwaroopam, releases across India, his aficionados in Tamil Nadu will have to grind their teeth and wait, as the film’s theatrical release is postponed a second time. And to thank for that, we have a group of bigoted idiots, who sought out the government and claimed the film was offensive to their religion.
On the same day that the Madras High Court did away with the mandate that all plays must get the approval of the Commissioner of Police before being staged, the Government of Tamil Nadu bowed down to the bigoted idiots who believe the film portrays all Muslims as terrorists, and banned the release of the film for two weeks.
The way art and film are treated in this country makes it hard to believe we actually live in a democracy, ruled by governments that claim to be secular, guided by a Constitution that declares itself secular.
A few years ago, another bunch of fools, claiming to be the guardians of Indian culture – a culture that doesn’t believe in vaginas – protested against the staging of The Vagina Monologues in the city. The government obligingly banned it. Reading the play didn’t quite motivate me to watch it, but I find it outrageous that a group was prevented from staging it, because certain morons were offended by the word ‘vagina’ – clearly having forgotten their own passage into this world.
It’s ridiculous that even while aspiring to be on par with the world’s superpowers, India and its constituent states regularly cave in to one demand after the other from groups representing the interests of religious extremists.
Thanks to this spinelessness of our political class – call it nursing a vote bank, call it ensuring public safety, call it pandering to bigotry – art, represented by literature, drama and cinema, has been constantly  muzzled.
In the Eighties, India led the world in its vilification of Salman Rushdie, by banning The Satanic Verses. In 2012, we proved we couldn’t stand up for an author born in this country when the government shrugged its shoulders and said it couldn’t provide protection to Salman Rushdie. Instead, an assembly of bearded men participated in protests for days, beaming with pride when their bigotry scored a victory over intelligence.
The film The Da Vinci Code was banned, until a court ordered its release, thanks to bigots who believed the contents of the film were offensive to their religion.
Kamal Haasan’s Dasavathaaram was targeted by yet another group of bigots, who took umbrage at the scene of a temple idol being lowered into the sea.
There have been several other films that were banned, or severely edited, to keep them within the boundaries of the tolerance of the narrow-minded nincompoops who have taken it upon themselves to bear flags for sundry religions and the elusive ‘Indian culture’.
Fire was slashed almost in half, because some us don’t believe lesbians exist. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t release in India because the censors’ guidelines would have required cuts. M F Husain had cases pending against him, and had been arrested multiple times, even in his nineties.
What annoys me most is that the campaigners for bans on films and books and art are usually of such low cultural calibre that they are unlikely to have read – or to be able to read – these books, or understand these films. And yet these are the people the governments are scared of.
The irony is this – despite all these bans being declared at the behest of these groups, can we say our blocking out all controversy from art has kept this country from exploding in riots? Has it kept even our so-called intelligentsia, represented by scholars and writers and journalists and theatre groups, from taking pot-shots at each other?
In speaking of our central and state governments’ inept attitude to these rabble-rousers, we can’t ignore the fact that our intellectuals haven’t done much to fight it. When Rushdie was forced out of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the other authors’ idea of protest was to read passages from the banned book to a gawking audience. If any of them had been serious about fighting the bigotry, they should have registered their protest by staying away from the festival. To top it all off, Chetan Bhagat, pulp fiction machine and self-appointed spokesman for ‘Young India’, had a word of advice for Rushdie.
When Husain’s exhibitions were attacked by Hindu outfits, how many art promoters were willing to host private shows of his work? I should say that I don’t buy into the wave of sympathy for him after he took on Qatari citizenship – I doubt the country would have shown a more liberal attitude than India if his paintings were offensive to Islamic sentiments – and I find his painting of Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga embarrassingly sycophantic, but that doesn’t imply that his exhibitions should have been allowed to be attacked by Hindu fundamentalist groups, or that the artist should have been persecuted for “hurting religious sentiments”.
When a Muslim outfit voiced concern about Vishwaroopam portraying the religion in a bad light, Kamal Haasan held a private screening for them, instead of ignoring their attention-seeking ploy. Now, they claim the film is offensive after all.
If we want to call ourselves a democracy, and continue to claim we are secular, we need to take a stance against the enslavement of art by bigots. And we need to make a stand in our little ways, whether it’s boycotting a festival that is cowed down by the whims of extremists, or finding informal avenues for the reception of art.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hugh Jackman carries Les Misérables

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on January 20, 2013)

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfriend, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and others
Director: Tom Hooper
Rating: 4 stars
In the musical version of Les Misérables, the opening scene, with the chain gang Jean Valjean belongs to, instantly sets the tone for the story – it gives us gooseflesh, makes our shoulders ache, our stomachs turn. In the film version, the song Look Down is that much bigger. With the sea for a backdrop, the anonymity, despair, shackled life, and insignificance of the prisoners seems that much more real. We barely recognise Hugh Jackman among them. Looking down from the great height that will symbolise his stance throughout the film is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
The film takes us from 1815 to the Revolt of 1832, and begins 19 years into the sentence Valjean – or ‘24601’ as he is branded – is serving for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s son. The wonderfully-crafted musical has been running for over 25 years across the Palais de Sports, the West End, and Broadway. In converting it to celluloid, the only factors that change are the production values and the cast. The sets, costumes, and palette have been so carefully created that we lose all sense of this being a modern-day production. It helps that the language is more or less archaic, and the fact that the dialogues are sung and not spoken does away with modern inflections.
But what stands out most about the film is Hugh Jackman’s superlative brilliance in the role of Jean Valjean. The character is an odd mix of strength and vulnerability, of faith and paranoia, of goodness and vanity. And Jackman’s performance shows us just how much he has absorbed Valjean into himself. The constant worry that comes with a life on the run comes through in a crinkle of the forehead, a twitch of the eyelids, a shudder of the mouth. The gamut of expressions that Valjean must take on, as he meets kindness for the first time, as he’s shamed by his temptations, as he evades the determined tailing of Javert, as he’s filled with remorse at the fate Fantine (Anne Hathaway) suffers, as he finds purpose in raising Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), as he confronts all his demons in seeking out Marius (Eddie Redmayne), play easily on Jackman’s face, and he even seems to age with the character. His rendering of Who Am I? deserves special mention – at the crescendo, we feel an urge to give him a standing ovation as we would do if he were on stage.
Russell Crowe as Javert doesn’t test his vocal range much, except in his last song, but portrays his menacing presence with skill. With his principles at odds with his conscience, we find ourselves not hating Javert, but regarding him as Valjean does – a man who must do his duty. While Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do their comic bit as the Thénardiers very nicely, especially in the songMaster of the House, the humour does eventually get laboured.
The women in the lead roles are sorely disappointing. Though Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried are apparently trained opera singers, you wouldn’t know it – between Hathaway’s thin rendition of the powerful I Dreamed a Dream and Seyfried’s struggle to find the right key, one wishes the casting directors had chosen better singers. The roles are secondary, and didn’t need stars. Their stilted singing ruins the remarkable music design of the film, and the delicate balance of harmonies in the songs.
The Verdict: Hugh Jackman’s acting makes the film a worthy watch, even in a cinema filled with hooting teenagers and hecklers in the ten-rupee seats.

Laying a trap

(Published in The New Sunday Express, January 20, 2013)

Cast: Arjun Rampal, Chitrangada Singh, Deepti Naval, Vipin Sharma, Kanwaljit Singh and others
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Rating: 3.5 stars
When a woman in the top rungs of a corporate ladder accuses a man in the rung above of sexual harassment, we know it can’t end well. And if the two were in a relationship at some point, we aren’t sure whom to believe. Do men in positions of power exploit women who want to make it big? Do women who claim positions of power sleep their ways to their ranks? Are the women who’ve made it on merit given the credit for it? Does every small-town girl wanting to carve out a life for herself in a big city need a mentor? And if she does have a mentor, how much does she owe him? These are uncomfortable questions, and Sudhir Mishra teases our minds into thinking of answers.
Inkaar explores the relationship between Rahul Verma (Arjun Rampal) and Maya Luthra (Chitrangada Singh), as their careers – and ambitions – grow over seven years. We see significant events in flashback, from the site of an internal inquest headed by social worker Mrs Kamdar (Deepti Naval). Maya has filed a sexual harassment case against her boss, Rahul. The debate over the line between ‘consensual flirting’ and ‘sexual harassment’ echoes the infamous case that hit a major publishing company in 2010. We’re reminded through boardroom deliberations that the case isn’t simply about the careers of these two, but also the reputation of the ad agency they work for.
The film begins in a manner that balances our inclination to go with the purported victim’s account – by showing us the accused when he was a little boy, crying after being bullied. The scene comes back to us as the story unfolds, making us wonder whether bullying can only come from the stronger party. The child from Saharanpur has now grown into Rahul, advertising powerhouse, with a posh home in a big city, and an ailing father (Kanwaljit Singh) to care for. We are introduced to Maya as the sort of woman who would say confidently, “Don’t worry, I’m a professional. Tum Rahul ko sambhal lo”, before heading off to a meeting with clients, at which the man she has accused of sexual harassment will be present. She isn’t the type who’d wear conservative clothes to the hearing to win pity points, because she believes she doesn’t need props to sell her pitch. You figure out something of her psyche when you hear her mother say to her, with a smile, “Ladka achha hai. Lekin tujhse shaadi nahin karega.”
The film is layered with moments that place a tremendous burden on the cast. Arjun Rampal, who’s played consistently more challenging roles, is up to the task. He looks the part of an Indian Don Draper, the sort of man who would justify flirting in office on the grounds that ad agencies are filled with hundreds of men and women, thinking up lines to sell condoms, lingerie, and sanitary pads, for up to twenty hours a day. His delivery of provocative lines, and his comic timing, serve to make his role convincing. Chitrangada Singh, while she struggles with the subtler moments, has far less to do, and carries her role off by simply looking the part.
Unfortunately, the film takes the easy way out at the end, leaving us feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
The Verdict: Filled with the grey shades Sudhir Mishra delights in, the film’s punchy enough to make up for the end.

Gangster Squad lights a damp squib

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on January 19, 2013)

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, Giovanni Ribisi, and others
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Rating: 2 stars
Every time a gangster movie has a bad boy called ‘Mickey’, one is tempted to groan. You know there will be nicknames along the lines of ‘The Blade’ and ‘Scarface’ and ‘Gun Hand’ and ‘Pretty Boy’ and ‘Cat’s Whiskers’ and ‘Tommy Gun’. Well, the ones in this film are rather less memorable, and I wish I could forget that the only joke around Mickey’s name is the obvious pun about the Mouse. Facepalm. But this film lives up to gangster lore by populating itself with stock characters, each of whom has exactly one talent. And not all of these talents are useful. Jerry’s (Ryan Gosling’s) main skill appears to be charming ladies of the Forties into bedding him, while wearing a bowler hat at a saucy angle. And that only lands everyone in a lot of trouble, and gets some people killed.
So, sometime in 1949, having executed a man, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) announces that Los Angeles belongs to him. He’s engaged in some sort of war with a Chicago gang, and appears to be winning. The LA Police Department, though, decides to get in on the act. For some reason, Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) wants to “shatter Cohen’s operations” with utmost secrecy. Enter Sergeant O’ Mara (Josh Brolin), who puts together a band of war veterans and sharpshooters, who bond over post-war angst and general bloodthirstiness. They abandon badges, names, and principles, to become the Gangster Squad.
Adding a feminine touch to this orgy of gore are two redheads (Mireille Enos and Emma Stone), playing a pregnant wife and a strumpet-with-a-golden-heart respectively. The film tries its best to swim in its own testosterone, with lines like “The two things you can’t take back in this business are bullets outta your gun, and words outta your mouth”, but flails when its heroes break down every time someone dies. And the hamming from its star cast wouldn’t be out of place in a Bollywood film from the Angry Young Man era.
The film does have its high points. My favourites are a couple of well-timed lines from Giovanni Ribisi, who is the brain – and conscience – of an army of adrenaline-fuelled vigilantes. And there are comic sequences that are nicely done. However, the dialogue, especially in those parts that aspire to cleverness, tends to be irritatingly vacant. And a cast that appeared happy to make fun of itself in the beginning becomes progressively wannabe tough-dude-ish. Even the video quality drops towards the end, and the finale descends into a series of slow-mo and rapid action sequences.
Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t see too many good gangster films nowadays is that people don’t write Gangsterspeak anymore. In a nod to feminism or whatever it is, the women aren’t simply arm candy and sex toys. They’re people, whom the gangsters care about. And how many ever patriotic marches and video-game like gunfights you throw in, family men don’t make good bad boys.
The Verdict: If you’re craving gunshots, party girls, and swing music, you’re better off watching Once Upon a Time in America again.

The politics of Kaam Sutra

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on January 20, 2013, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/politics-of-kaam-sutra)

Cast: Arjun Rampal, Chitrangada Singh, Deepti Naval
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Rating: 3.5 stars
The easiest way for a woman to undermine a man’s reputation is by accusing him of sexual harassment. Make the right noises, shed the tears, and overnight, he’s the tharki, she the victim. On the other hand, have women really broken the glass ceiling? Is there equity in salaries, in career opportunities, in office romances? And if a woman and man were in a relationship at some point, is he allowed to make a move on her after they break up? The subject is a complex one, and Sudhir Mishra isn’t afraid of the grey shades.
Inkaar, which was originally titled Kaam, weaves between the past and present, and we see so many versions of what may have happened that we’re not quite sure where the blame lies, if at all blame is to be laid on anyone. Most of the action happens at a hearing presided over by social worker Mrs Kamdar (Deepti Naval). As they recount what happened to a committee that comprises two men and two women, Rahul Verma (Arjun Rampal) and Maya Luthra (Chitrangada Singh) play on sympathies and weaknesses, layering the story with possibilities.
Mishra raises crucial questions in this film, and explores the idea of gender bias. Are women the only ones who suffer from biases? When you mould a protégé into becoming what he or she is, how much does the protégé owe you? Can a romance between boss and subordinate take on a different power equation out of office? Does that affect office relations? If there’s a spark between two people in different grades, is it genuine love, manipulation, or power play?
The fact that both Rahul and Maya are small town kids with strong ambitions brings in another dimension. However, one wishes Maya’s roots and her dynamic with her mother had been illustrated as well as Rahul’s with his family. The film is well cast – both Arjun Rampal and Chitrangada Singh look the part of the characters they play. Rampal’s grown tremendously as an actor over the years, and his portrayal of the character is nuanced. We see an arrogant, assertive man who can also be caring and introspective. Chitrangada Singh tends to overdo the sultry looks and hard talk, but carries off the role nevertheless.
Sadly, the film shies away from the brutal end it needed – like the cruel assertion of human nature we saw in Hazaaron Khwaahishein Aisi.
The Verdict: The end strikes an odd note, but this is a gutsy film, one that should be seen.

Big guns, no fire

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on January 20, 2013, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/big-guns-no-fire)

Cast: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and others
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Rating: 2 stars
Given Ruben Fleischer’s penchant for comedy, I suspected Gangster Squad was a spoof when it opened with a tough-guy voiceover and the trembling of ancient muscles, followed by a man being torn apart like a Christmas cracker. No. Turns out they’re really serious about this one. And from quoting Edmund Burke’s “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, to spouting lines like, “You’ll wake up one morning with your best part stuffed into your mouth”, the film doesn’t skirt a single gangster movie cliché.
Now, that’s all very well if you like watching four men walk tough as a fifth smokes nonchalantly, leaning against a car while another blows up in the background. Or, if you like violent fights choreographed to opera music, with blood squirting out in ballet leaps. But this offers us nothing new, nothing that hasn’t been done – and done better – before. There are some delicious lines, and the comic timing of the screenplay stands testimony to Fleischer’s skill in that genre. However, in aspiring to gangster kitsch, the film has way too many ridiculous set pieces.
When a film claims to be based on real events, perhaps the way to go about it is to pare down the drama of it all, like the makers ofTinker Tailor Soldier Spy did. Guns, bowler hats and trench coats are dramatic enough, without studiedly suspicious glances, the constant rattle of machine guns, and the biting out of lines as if carrots were stuck to the actors’ palates.
The other problem I have with the setting is that, while the production quality is quite wonderful, the dialogue is at odds with the era. The costumes, colours, signboards, and music take us back to 1949, when Hollywood was ‘Hollywoodland’, but the star cast is stuck in the wrong decade. Their drawls are not the staccato of the Forties and Fifties. And all the hair gel in the world won’t disguise an anachronism like, “All good things have to be burned to the ground one day for the insurance money.”
At times, the story shows promise, but it’s undermined by unlikely twists, and confused character sketches. I mean, I get why a wife would break a dinner plate when her cop husband decides to take on a ruthless criminal, but I don’t see how she could be cheerfully shortlisting prospective comrades over breakfast. The nail in the coffin is a saccharine final voiceover that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney production.
The Verdict: Yet another run-of-the-mill tribute to the great gangster films that catapulted Hollywood’s Italian-origin bad boys to fame.

Game show turns morality play

(Published in The Friday Times, published on January 18, 2013, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20130118&page=21)

Cast: Rajeev Khandelwal, Paresh Rawal, Tena Desae, Dhruv Ganesh
Director: Aditya Datt
Rating: 1 star
When a movie that appears to be social commentary on the intrusive nature of voyeuristic reality shows suddenly turns into a very expensive public service message against ragging, there are three outcomes: (a) The plot suddenly has more holes than the heroine’s sexiest outfit (b) The film is a contender for worst-of-the-year despite releasing barely a week into 2013 (c) You understand why the producers couldn’t afford to send the female lead to the salon – or buy her a razor – before making her lift her arms in triumph.
I’m not even sure what the title of the film is a take on – Article 21 of the Constitution of India, in which one’s right to life is enshrined, the 21 crore-rupee reward that is the bait in the reality show, the 21 grams we supposedly lose when we die, or the minutes the scriptwriters spent on the film. Table No. 21 opens to a crass couple, Vimaan and Siya, of whom the crasser is Siya, as evidenced by the fact that her main concern on a free business-class flight journey is freeloading on the booze.
Vimaan is played by Rajeev Khandelwal, who recently hosted the game show Sacch ka Saamna, the Indian version of The Moment of Truth. The show was most famous for making a string of has-beens, including cricketer Vinod Kambli, and B-listed former actors weep on television, and I assumed Khandelwal’s inclusion in the film was to enhance the irony of the plotline. Turns out there’s no plotline. We’re told through the conversation between Vivaan and Siya that they’ve won the trip in a lucky draw, and have been sent to Fiji. Vivaan’s unemployed, and Siya’s vegetarian. Yes, that’s what we gather in the first ten minutes. Also, that the film was made with assistance from the Fijian Ministry of Tourism. Figures.
We realise why the numerologically-empowered Tena Desae is in the film, when she wastes no time in stripping down to a bikini for a pseudo-Sufi-inspired song, in which the leads promptly get wet. We see how happy they are, until Paresh Rawal enters, his thunderbolt-shaped streak of hair setting off a shiny scalp. “My name is Khan,” he says, to which Witty Vivaan quips, “I know who you are. Your name is Khan, and you are not a terrorist.” Witty Vivaan will further prove his spontaneity and erudition over a painful half-hour. But that gives us some relief from the rest of the dialogue, which largely comprises, “I love Fiji/you/it/her/him/this place/this necklace/this cake!”
There is little consistency in the film, but the one lesson that’s constantly drilled in is this – chicks dig poetry, irrespective of its quality. However, the filmmakers get carried away even with this theme, and throw in a song in Indian-English, which suddenly breaks off into a lament in Urdu. The film is scattered with symbolism that even the dialogue-writers seem hard-put to understand or explain – a coiled snake emblem, a series of empty canvases, which lead to a hollow exchange about thought, imagination, and art.
What I find most bizarre about the film is that for most of its duration, it’s about a reality show that no one except its dedicated millions-strong audience appears to know of. They also double as paparazzi, and we’re never sure whether they all descend on Fiji, or whether they just have extremely powerful camera lenses. When the twist-in-the-tail comes, about five scenes in the film make no sense, including a gory shot up front that’s presumably been thrown in to establish the credibility of this reality show.
As if the terrible one-liners that pass for humour in this film weren’t bad enough, the dialogue is peppered with the sort of clichés well-meaning, retired relatives forward in bulk emails – you know, “The guy who said money can’t buy happiness just didn’t know where to shop” and so on. Eventually, the audience starts laughing every time a swearword is used, thus branding the comedy irredeemably low-brow.
Aside from a cheap imitation of the style of cinematography used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the most jarring note in the film is Paresh Rawal’s performance. The usually outstanding actor struggles for conviction in a character written so badly that he shouldn’t have taken up the role, even as a challenge. The big reveal at the end strikes such a discordant note with the rest of the film that it’s almost as if two scripts got mixed up. None of the actors is able to handle it, and this is best illustrated when the cruel sidekick breaks down in the background, as if hoping an important filmmaker will notice his histrionics, and offer him a second chance.

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